Value for money, friendly people, great food... No wonder Portugal's Algarve coast is so popular with Brits all year round. Here's all you need to know for the perfect holiday...
Holidays in the Algarve: Ten things you need to know
Portugal isn't just a pretty face - it has just topped the Post Office's latest Holiday Money Report as the cheapest place for a holiday in Europe. That's in part thanks to the pound strengthening against the euro, but it's also because local businesses have been slashing costs in-resort by up to half, keen to win back the Brits who've been heading to destinations such as Turkey, which have offered better value in recent years.
There's more to Portugal's south coast than timeshares and golf courses. And you don't have to travel far beyond its manicured fairways, the crowd-pulling resorts of Albufeira, Portimão and Vilamoura (pictured) and family fun parks to discover the sheer variety of experiences on offer. It's less than 250km from the Spanish border in the east to the most westerly point of the Algarve at Sagres, connected by a good fast road, and just 40km from its northern border to its southern shores...
It would be easy to spend a whole week here exploring the historic towns, hidden coves, sand islands and windswept beaches, oak and pine forests, and natural parks rich in wildlife and find a little time to squeeze in a session on the sun-lounger with the latest blockbuster. Along the way, you'll discover beach bars and market cafes serving great seafood, such as the local fish casserole, cataplana, and defying Portugal's weak culinary reputation. And, of course, there are plenty of festivals to join in with – in true Iberian style, this country will use any excuse for a party, from the advent of Easter to the veneration of a favourite local sausage.
The Algarve enjoys one of the longest holiday seasons for a European destination, promising sunny days from May through to October. The months of July and August remain peak season, when temperatures can soar into the 30Cs. But spring and autumn are the optimum time to visit – the crowds won't be so pressing and the temperature can still hit an agreeable 18C. This is a popular winter destination, too, for those who don't want to travel too far to get away from Britain's chill winds. While the climate might be mild at this time of year on the Algarve, you should pack a jumper and a raincoat to be on the safe side.
Faro airport is the gateway to the region, with scheduled services boosted by charter flights during peak season and good deals made possible by the sharp competition between the many airlines that serve this destination. There are lots of car hire outlets at the airport, the best choice of transport if you want to balance lying on the beach with a little exploration. Alternatively, public transport here is efficient and well connected. Take a bus or cab into Faro, just 6km away, and from there, you can hook up with the Algarve railway, which runs between Lagos (pictured) and the Spanish border, with onward connections to the rest of Portugal and Spain, or the comfortable and quick bus network If you've got the pedal power, go at your own speed along the trans-Algarve cycle route.
Follow the Rio Guadiana, which marks the Algarve's border with Spain, to explore the frontier town of Vila Real de Santo Antonio (pictured), where you can also take a fun 20-minute ferry ride to Ayamonte in Spain. Don't miss Castro Marim and Alcoutim either. Drive along the pretty valley road between the latter two fortress towns and you'll understand why it's worth hiring a car.
See the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa (pictured), to the east – a system of salt marshes and tidal mudflats protected by sand islands that is one of Europe's most important wetlands. Visit the wide dune-backed beaches of the west coast, an invigorating landscape beloved by the surfing community and protected from over-development as the Parque Natural da Costa Vicentina.
Inland, the forests at Sao Bras and the Serra de Monchique provide a home to the rare Iberian lynx, wild boar and foxes beneath their canopies of cork, chestnut and eucalyptus trees. At Caldas de Monchique (pictured), a spa town since Roman times, you can also drink the thermal waters and take a walk up to Foia, the Algarve's highest point.
Wherever you're staying, you'll find a town or city on the doorstep steeped in history with museums, churches and other places to visit of cultural interest. Tavira, in the east, sets the architectural tone, with its crumbling 18th-century buildings, a landscape of whitewashed walls, terracotta roofs and wrought-iron balconies, showcasing the architecture exported by the Portuguese to their colonies. Others to tick off the list include the old walled towns of Faro and Lagos and the pretty market town of Loulé; the North African-style maze of streets at Olhão; and the Moorish capital of Silves, with its castle and cathedral. Check out the Roman ruins of Milreu in Estoi, and the exquisite gilded and tiled interiors of the 17th-century church at Vila do Bispo.
Stroll around the ruins of Henry the Navigator's Fort on the clifftop at Sagres. These white walls once housed the Cape Canaveral of the 13th century, a seafaring academy where the prince gathered the world's top cartographers and astronomers and counted Magellan and Vasco da Gama among its alumni. Strike out along the cliffs to the Cabo de São Vicente (pictured), the south-westerly point of Europe, where stands the ruins of a Capuchin monastery and a lighthouse dating from the 1800s.
'Feeling tired? Don't be tempted to stretch in public, it's considered rude!' J.Kellet 'Think the British are obsessed with standing in line? The Portuguese don't appreciate queue-jumpers either.' Sally D 'The area is famous for its beautifully designed Moorish chimneys, the chamine Algarvia - simply amazing.' Jim Hartley
You could build your whole holiday around the handy chain of pousadas (visit pousadasofportugal.com for more), which connects the eastern and western ends of this coast – what they sometimes can lack in service, they often more than make up for in architectural or geographical beauty. Starting at the exquisite former 16th-century convent in Tavira (pictured), where you can dine in an elegant central courtyard, continue on to the ornate 19th-century Palace of Estoi, near Faro. Pop across the border of the Alentejo, to find a modern pousada in the Serra de Monchique, on the banks of Portugal's largest reservoir, at Santa Clara-a-Velha, before heading south-west to the pousada on the cliffs of Sagres for magnificent Atlantic views.
The Algarve's latest resort, Martinhal (pictured), will delight fans of modern architecture and top-quality service. This hotel and villa complex from the founders of UK family favourite hotel Woolley Grange, has been designed by top London firm Conran + Partners as a radical sequence of concrete and glass boxes that terrace up the dunes behind, arguably, the Algarve's most spectacular beach. For more hotels in the Algarve, or to book your holiday, visit Expedia.